Cabler also gets jump on 'Episode III'

NEW YORK — HBO has embraced the Force, agreeing to lay out about $15 million for the exclusive pay TV rights to “Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones.”

The far-reaching deal also encompasses exclusive windows for HBO on the previous four “Star Wars” movies and a first negotiating position on “Star Wars: Episode III,” which is in the early stages of pre-production.

“Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace” bypassed pay TV in its first go-round, premiering directly on the Fox Network, which had to agree to cover the lost pay revenue. The price was an eye-popping $80 million, but Fox got the movie within 18 months of its debut in the multiplexes for a 10-year license term.

The addition of “Attack of the Clones” to HBO’s lineup gives the network a leg up on its pay TV competitors Starz! and Showtime for exclusive rights to 2002’s box office winners. HBO has, among other big titles, “Spider-Man,” “Harry Potter & the Chamber of Secrets,” “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” “Men in Black II,” “Scooby-Doo,” “Minority Report” and “Catch Me if You Can.”

But even blockbusters like “Phantom Menace,” which grossed $310 million in U.S. theaters, are not harvesting the huge Nielsen ratings that movies used to garner on broadcast TV: With occasional exceptions like “Spider-Man” and the first two “Harry Potter” movies, broadcast and cable networks have backed off from paying humongous license fees for big-grossing theatricals.

Lucasfilm sensed this shift last summer and tried to engineer a pay TV deal for “Clones,” sending out offer letters to HBO, Starz! and Showtime.

At the time all three networks said the price was too rich for their blood, and Lucasfilm ended up enlisting its more experienced partner 20th Century Fox, which distributed the movie theatrically. Twentieth went first to HBO, which has an output deal with the studio, and the parties wound up agreeing to the general outlines of a deal late last year.

HBO gets “Clones” in late summer for an 18-month exclusive window; the movie then goes into a four-year broadcast/basic cable license term. HBO gets the movie back for subsequent windows after the four years.

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